....Research Topics and Speculation about Art and Public Space by Scottish Citizen and artist Matt Baker

Friday, 6 November 2015

Art Where the Waves Break

For a while I have been thinking about the changes I am seeing in artist practice around me and wondering why this is happening and what art is for in the world we now live in. Recently I was asked to contribute a  keynote 'scottish perspective' to an international symposium on art in public space...this gave me the chance to try out some ideas. Here is the transcript and images from that talk

My talk is called ‘A Scottish Perspective’ in the programme – but what follows is, necessarily, a very personal approach. But, as will become clear, my version of personal turns out to be very unstable in its relationship to notions of group, collective and society. Scottish, in my understanding is a shared place, a shared context for action and an emotional relationship with a culture.
For me ENGAGEMENT is the key word of this Symposium and the changing nature of the way artists are engaging with ideas of public is what I want to talk about.

I’d like to invite you to take an imaginative leap and turn things around for minute and see the world we operate in as the sea instead of the land.
Most of my life as an artist (which began in the 80s) I have experienced the majority of interesting art process as taking place HERE….in the centre of the ocean. What i am saying is that artists were feeling for the deep currents, the energy and momentum of ideas…..the things that were not the immediate reality of most other people in society. Artists were trying to mix their work with those currents and ultimately be made real, as waves….but crucially, where those waves would ultimately form and land was not specified, meaning that there was engagement with a public but mostly this was not key to the meaning of the work. > This is a vision of the artist as OUTSIDER – a position that is seen as crucial to their engagement with the world.

Today, within the Scottish context, as I know it, I experience a shift in the place of operation of much interesting work from the deep currents to the place of physical contact with the rest of the world…the impact zone where the waves break.

This is the place of impact, of connection, of shared lived experience. When artists work here, the chaos of action makes it much harder to separate who is doing what – AUTHORSHIP becomes blurred and it is becomes increasingly irrelevant to make distinctions between OUTSIDERS and INSIDERS. This is a real challenge for how we understand art process and the idea of what constitutes artist, audience and the role of art in society.

So why the desire to operate in this confusing and challenging space – that is a too big a question for this talk and the discussion is certainly not limited to a Scottish contex

What I believe has definitely changed here though is a renewed sense of possibility – a new belief in the possibility of an action having a direct effect. For all of my working life as an artist in public space in Scotland until now I have been surrounded by a culture of impossibility rather than possibility.  

You were usually cried a lunatic (or an artist I guess) for trying to do anything at all – because any fool could see that there really was no point trying to change anything!
However, for the last three years one of the most extraordinary public art projects has been happening here…the artwork has been the repeated and collective repetition of the word YES.

This art project got thousands of people to re-engage with the future and to go out onto the streets to yell YES at anyone who would listen… And it terrified the establishment who relied on fear of change to maintain the status quo. In Scotland right now there is a renewed sense that things are possible and this is the new culture that lays down a challenge to artists to engage with that possibility through immersing themselves in the HERE and the NOW and in the WE.

So….what are we seeing on the ground? We are seeing a practice that places ENGAGEMENT at its very core…..practice that sets out to have a direct effect on people and places in its immediate locale. Artists are opening buildings, embedding themselves within communities. But these  buildings are not just places to make and show what they make – they are places for learning, for sharing, for helping - for a wider society. Artists are trying to support collective action, actions not authored in the traditional ART sense – rather this is practice that is designed to spread authorship and ultimately question the idea of ownership altogether.

This is On The Corner which opened in Glasgow’s East End  a few months back. The artists have the whole building and are using part of it as studio/gallery space, but they are also running Rave Aerobics classes.....

and…..a café and food project

…….and a social enterprise that uses the profits from selling upcycled furniture to offer free courses in upcycling

But actually much of the most deeply embedded work of this type is happening not in Scotlands cities but in the towns

Towns and villages are where 69% of our population live, but the majority of which have been in serious decline since the 80s. A decline that has resulted in the negativity described but because of their size artist find within them a scale of community connection that suits this practice of engagement. A practice that perhaps has its roots in the Art Labs and community arts centres of the 1960s and 70s.

Timespan in Helmsdale in Sutherland, Deveron Arts in Huntley Aberdeenshire (with its ‘town is the gallery’ concept), The Eiggbox residency space on the Isle of Eigg and Atlas Arts which doesn’t have a building but curates within communities and is currently on North Uist.

Then North Light is growing fast in Dunbar as part of their transition town project,  Scottish Sculpture Workshop under the directorship of Nuno Sacromento is embracing the idea of ‘thinking globally and acting locally’, Berwick Film festival is reclaiming redundant spaces around the town and I’ve included Greenock Sugar Sheds , because lets hope that something can still grow there from the initial work of locally based artists there such as Alec Galloway.

Which brings me to The Stove in Dumfries – a project that I have been involved with since its beginning 4.5 years ago.
Stove Network was an entirely artist created and artist-led initiative. We are based in a three storey shop unit in the heart of Dumfries town centre and our aim is to breathe new life into the town and use art and creativity to involve local people in making a new future for Dumfries – as a vibrant regional capital
We now have more than 200 members ranging from established artists to students and emerging artist and have now grown to include local businesses, community groups and anyone who believes in the vision of our town as place that is not solely about shopping but is a civic place of meeting and social purpose and a gateway to the culture, landscape and heritage of the wider region.

The Stove believes in long term embedded practice in a place and in a community. Work that is not ‘parachuted in’ but has time to grow and develop with the place and people it is for.

Hands-on process focusing on a commitment to demystifying and a ‘can-do’ ethos. This ultimately extends to a vision of creative practice becoming integrated into the wider structures of our society….this is the bigger aim of The Stove – to challenge risk-averse culture and replace it with one of making things happen through people taking creative responsibility for the environment around them.

We have been active for four years, but did not have a building to start with – instead we made public actions in the town…Charter 14 – a new town charter crowd-sourced from people and groups in Dumfries – and launched by wrapping the first lines around the town fountain on banners that needed wetting to become legible….we then gave people sponges to dip in the fountain and throw at the banners.

For the last 3 years we have staged Nithraid which celebrates Dumfries’ relationship with the River Nith through a daring sailing race right up the river from the Solway Firth into the centre of town. A race made possible by the highest tides of the year and complicated by currents, shifting sandbanks and low bridges. The race is also a platform for a public spectacle that involves the legendary Salty Coo of Dumfries and other diverse and unexpected entertainments.

We also stage discussion events – this is the Lost Supper, a dinner party in Greyfriars Church hosted by contemporaries of Robert Burns. Here the Marquis De Sade and William Blake lead a conversation about a re-imagined Dumfries.

In April this year we finally moved into the building that we had been negotiating for since 2011

This is how were are working in the building with activity strands (in yellow) and, in red are the partnerships that we are involved in and around those strands of activity.

Dumfries Music Conference is now in its third year. It comprises workshops and events centred around people at the early stages of a career in the music industry. This is Radio DMC – an online radio station that ran for two days and featured live performances from local bands and musicians as well as giving experience to young presenters.

The Stove presents regular gigs as platforms for emerging local and Scottish bands 

The Word strand has Brave New Words – a monthly open-mic night for original writing in addition to workshops, pop-up bookshops and other opportunities for writers

The Food strand centres on the café at The Stove (that we are in the final stages of building), but also includes events around growing and preparing food. We have done a few fires in the town square outside the Stove – on this one we cooked bannocks that people were making inside the building.

Future thinking about the town we are based in and encouraging people to take part in making a future for the town is a huge part of what The Stove does. For us, social media, as a means of participating in the HERE and NOW of our shared place is an artwork strategy. The Speechbubble project invited people to make the buildings of Dumfries speak by filling in speechbubbles and sharing photos of them on social media.

Selected speechbubbles were converted into silkscreens for printing

The Stove became a screenprinting factory for a day run by members of the Young Stove (our youth group) making teeshirts with the public

The project then took another turn with words from the speechbubbles being made into temporary sign boards for empty shops around the town as a wider project to explore what a cultural town centre might look like began.

The Lens-based strand at The Stove includes screenings, discussions, film-making and projections/installations. This is a local group of skateboarders watching their own films in a temporary cinema on the third underground level of an NCP carpark in Dumfries as part of The Stove’s Parking Space event in October 2014

Working with young people runs through much of The Stove’s work – the Young Stove is the youth wing of the network. This is their recent group show Not to be Sold Separately.

Meanwhile there is still work happening in the middle of the ocean. But much of the ‘deep current’ work that I see is now focussed on concepts about possible future societies….imagined organisations and ways of people coming together in new ways.

Environmental Art Festival Scotland is a biennal event that began as an expression of the community of interest around place-centred practice in South West Scotland and is rapidly growing nationally and internationally.

The Stove is one of the producing partners and this year’s event was co-produced by local creative producers Wide–Open and co-curated by myself and fellow artist Robbie Coleman.
EAFS 15 was a 2 day festival that created a temporary community in the remote landscape of the Lowther hills around the ruins of Morton Castle.

The festival community lived entirely without money and all food was shared and cooked on the 90 foot River of Fire barbeque

The space of the EAFS ‘village’ made places for gatherings hosted by artists

In the wide area around the castle artists were actively making work in the landscape – visitors to the festival followed maps in the EAFS newspaper to encounter the artists

Glasgow photographic collective Phoco Foco set themselves up in a remote bothy 2 hours walk from the EAFS village, where they spent the weekend conducting experiments using a chemical darkroom, a camera attached to a kite, pinhole cameras and cyanotypes.

The experience of EAFS was formative for this relatively young group of artists who learned a great deal about how being part of the collective could support their individual practices and what they might do next as a group.

At night people returned to the village where themed campfire conversations were hosted by artists and other thinkers and activists

Sanctuary is another Dumfries and Galloway project. (Curator Jo Hodges was also talking in more detail about Sanctuary later in the Symposium).

Sanctuary created an experimental space in the Galloway Forest outside the reach of internet and common communication where artists staged creative experiments – all of which were designed to leave little trace afterwards. For example Dark Skies FM is a 24 hour radio broadcast within the area of Sanctuary in which none of the music broadcast has ever been broadcast before and is destroyed after this transmission.

Other examples include Camp Breakdown Breakdown a week-long ecological theory workshop at Scottish Sculpture workshop, Roanne Dods and Gerry Hassan’s Festival of Ideas and the recent Unusual Suspects festival in Glasgow that focussed on Social Innovation

All that remains is to leave you with a question – if all this engagement has an intention…then where is this ultimately leading and what does success look like. What happens if a future world emerges where creative practice IS integrated into everything that society does. Will the artists have become the new establishment or will creative practice ensure a constant reinvention that makes the existence of an establishment impossible???